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The Politics of Sex and Gender:

Benhabib and Butler Debate Subjectivity


FIONA WEBSTER

This paper responds to the sense of crisis or trouble that dominates contemporary feminist debate about the categories of sex and gender. It argues that this
perception of crisis has emerged from a fundamental confusion of theoretical and
political issues concerning the implications of the sex/gender debate for political representation and agency. It explores the sense in which this confusion is manifest in a
debate between Seyla Benhabib and Judith Butler.

A sense of crisis prevails in some contemporary Anglo-American feminist


debates, a sense that the instability and indeterminacy of recent accounts of
sex and gender are undermining the very foundations on which feminism is
built. There is, as Judith Butler remarks, a certain sense of trouble, as if the
indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism (1990, vii). As a movement which has, historically, sought to represent
the needs and concerns of the gendered identity category women, feminism
has appeared to rely upon a universal, stable, or fixed conception of that
category in order to ground its theoretical and political claims. It has relied
upon the idea that there is a subject of feminism (woman) whose needs and
concerns can be defined as subjects of political representation.
In recent years, however, feminism has been criticized for its assumption of
authority over the experience of women and for its general presumption that,
simply on the basis of a shared gendered identity, women have immediate access to and knowledge of the lives of other women. It is by no means clear that
all women need or want the same things. The very legitimacy of the political
representation of women and womens concerns is challenged by contemporary accounts of sex and gender. Such accounts contest the assumption that
reference can be made to any universal notion of what it is to be a woman
or of what constitutes womens concerns. Also subject to challenge is the
Hypatia vol. 15, no. 1 (Winter 2000) by Fiona Webster

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notion that individuals are at some point free from their social construction
as gendered. Womens agency, and therefore their capacity to actively contest dominant gender paradigms, is conceived as itself socially constructed, itself a product of highly gendered relations of power in society.
Historically, theorists seeking to draw a distinction between sex and gender
have claimed that sex is a wholly natural or biological category, independent
of the cultural construction of gender. On this basis they have claimed that our
gender is in no way fixed or determined by the nature of our sex. The rejection
of this distinction by contemporary feminist theorists, accompanied by a shift
in conceptual frameworks, is perceived to have both positive and negative implications for feminism. On the one hand, rejected in the new conceptual
framework is the notion of a wholly natural or fixed category of sex that
somehow pre-exists and is a passive basis for the cultural construction of gender. It is argued that sex is itself subject to cultural construction. On the other
hand, this new way of construing sex is perceived to be problematic for feminism insofar as it appears that what we mean when we refer to sex is unstable
and indeterminate. That is to say, in the new conceptual framework, not only
is gender construed as culturally constructed, and therefore as unstable, malleable, and negotiable, but so too is sex. This instability in the meaning or content of both sex and gender is thought to be problematic by those who believe
that the feminist movement depends on a stable conception of either sex or
gender.
In this paper, I will argue that this perception of trouble or crisis for
feminism has emerged from a fundamental confusion of theoretical and political issues concerning the implications of the sex/gender debate for political
representation and agency. This confusion is manifest in a debate between two
prominent contemporary feminist theorists, Seyla Benhabib and Judith Butler,
in the collection of essays Feminist Contentions (Benhabib et al. 1995).
There are two levels at which this debate between Benhabib and Butler
serves to illustrate this confusion. At a general level, the debate between them
illustrates precisely how disagreements have emerged in feminist theory about
the relation between some contemporary accounts of gender and the construction of a specifically feminist politics. At a more specific level, the debate between them provides the basis for a direct critique of Butlers rejection of the
sex/gender distinction and her performative account of those categories. Butlers performative account of sex and gender has been particularly influential in
contemporary Anglo-American feminist theory and is the subject of considerable debate.1
In the first section of the paper I will argue that, despite both rejecting the
sex/gender distinction, Benhabib and Butler disagree over what is lost or
gained in moving beyond this distinction. While Benhabib claims that Butler loses an account of agency, Butler considers herself to gain one. While both
agree that some account of agency is politically important for feminism, they

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disagree over precisely what sort of agency is required in order for specifically
feminist political concerns to be addressed. In the second section of the paper
I will address the issue of how Butler understands her performative account of
gender to be responsive to the criticisms raised by theorists such as Benhabib
against her work. I will address how she understands the theoretical imperatives which ground her work to relate to the broader political concerns of feminism.
FEMINIST CONTENTIONS: BENHABIB VERSUS BUTLER
(I) BENHABIBS CRITIQUE OF BUTLER
Seyla Benhabibs critique of Butler has two principal targets. The first is the
critique of identity categories and identity politics which she understands to be
at work in so-called postmodern theory. The second is Butlers account of gender as performance. Her critique of Butler operates as a specific example of the
way in which she understands a postmodern critique of identity categories to
give way to a subversion of the foundations of a feminist politics.
Benhabib claims that the critique of identity categories raised by postmodern theory gives rise to an identity crisis for feminism. She is by no means
alone in making such a claim.2 She argues that this identity crisis may eliminate not only the specificity of feminist theory but place in question the very
emancipatory ideals of the womens movement altogether (Benhabib 1995a,
20). Her argument is based on the claim that, in its strong form, postmodern
theory promotes a dissolution of the subject which in turn dissolves the concepts of intentionality, accountability, self-reflexivity and autonomy (1995a,
20). Postmodern theory has debilitating implications for feminism precisely
because the ideal of the autonomous, self-directing subject is replaced with a
fractured, opaque self (1992, 16). Given that womens sense of self is already
fragile, that their history has been written by others and that they have not
been able to fully control their lives, Benhabib claims that this fractured,
opaque self of postmodern theory can only provide women with a more fragmented and fragile vision of themselves and their future (1992, 16). As such,
it is a particularly damaging account of subjectivity and one which does not
further the emancipatory objectives of the feminist movement. The norms
of autonomy, choice, and self-determination in the legal, moral, and political
arenas are vital, Benhabib claims, for womens struggles to be successfully
voiced and acted upon (1992, 16). Indeed, she claims that the project of female
emancipation is unthinkable without recourse to a regulative principle on agency, autonomy, and selfhood (1995a, 21).
It is important to note, however, that there are reasons we might want to
question Benhabibs arguments even at this preliminary stage. First of all, we
might want to claim that she has mischaracterized postmodernism and has

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suggested wrongly that its theoretical imperatives give rise to a dissolution of


a conception of the subject. Second, we might want to question her claim that
a feminist politics requires recourse to particular regulative or normative principles in order to support its emancipatory objectives. I will come back to these
questions later in this paper. At this stage, it is pertinent that we first consider her critique of Butlers theory of performativity. This serves as an example
of how she understands the dissolution of the subject and subversion of the
emancipatory objectives of feminism to be operative in postmodern accounts
of subjectivity.
Butler outlines her account of gender as performance in her book Gender
Trouble (1990). In short, gender is performative, according to Butler, in the
sense that it is not a stable or fixed point of agency, but rather is an identity
category created and constituted through a stylized repetition of acts (1990,
140). Its meaning is constituted dramatically and contingently through sustained social performances which take place in the context of the regulatory
conventions and norms dominant in society (1990, 33). The ultimate effect of
these repeated performances is an appearance of substance, an appearance of
gender as a natural expression of particular bodies. This repetition rigidifies
and institutionalizes gender. At the same time, the very activity of this repetition of norms suggests for Butler the possibility that those norms can be subverted. Indeed, it is precisely in this variation in the way in which subjects
actively repeat norms that Butler locates agency.
Using Butlers theory of performativity as an example of the debilitating implications for feminism of a radical critique of identity categories and identity
politics, Benhabib understands that theory to be an instance of how a postmodern account of the subject disallows or dispenses with the ideals of autonomy, choice and self-determination. She claims that Butlers theory of performative gender constitution cannot give us a sufficiently thick and rich
account of gender formation that would also explain the capacities of human
agents for self-determination (1995b, 110). Benhabib explicitly locates her
critique of Butler as operative at two levels of analysis. At one level, she questions the sorts of social research paradigms which Butler relies upon in coming
to an account of gender constitution as performativity. Benhabib argues that
Butlers theory of performativity still presupposes a remarkably deterministic view of individuation and socialization processes which falls short of the
currently available social-scientific reflections on the subject (1995b, 110).
She therefore understands Butlers theory to go too far in its explanation of
subject constitution, insofar as it tends toward attributing too much power to
culture (/society/discourse) as a constitutive force, and too little power to individuals to resist wholesale cultural determination. The power of individuals
to resist such determination is, she claims, evident in contemporary psychosexual developmental accounts of subjects. In this sense, therefore, she is not
only making a general claim about such power being necessary, in her view, to

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any account of subjectivity, but she is claiming that social-scientific accounts


demonstrate the actual capacity of subjects to assert such power.
At another level, Benhabib questions the conception of agency implied
by Butlers theory of performativity (1995b, 111). Ultimately, she wants to
contest Butlers claim that her theory of performativity can, in fact, give an
account of agency. She claims that Butler wants to extend the limits of reflexivity in thinking about the self beyond the dichotomy of sex and gender
(1995a, 21). Benhabib is bringing together two issues in making this claim.
The first concerns the notion of reflexivity; the other concerns the dichotomy of sex and gender. The claim that Benhabib wants to make here is that
the capacity of subjects or selves for self-reflection (that is, reflexivity), a capacity which she appears to understand to be essential to agency, is brought
into question by Butlers project to move beyond the sex/gender dichotomy.
She understands Butlers project to be, at least in part, an attempt both to get
beyond the binary framework that has supported the categories of sex and gender and to locate agency in that reconfigured space. However, problems emerge
for Butler in providing an adequate account or explanation of agency.
Butler does indeed attempt to make this conceptual shift beyond the binary frame in her analysis of the categories of sex and gender. What exactly,
however, is the nature of the relation Benhabib wants to draw between Butlers
shift beyond the dichotomy of sex and gender and her account of agency?
Does Butlers theory of performativity ultimately disallow an account of agency? Moreover, do Benhabib and Butler have the same understanding of agency?
Benhabibs critique of Butler is leveled at precisely the point at which
Butler collapses the dichotomy of sex and genderthat is, the point at which
Butler seeks to claim that sex is a product or effect of gender, not a basic or
originary point on top of which are imposed various cultural significations.3
Butlers performative theory of gender constitution relies upon an account
of sex as always already gender. In other words, the category of sex does not
pre-exist gender, nor does it provide an ontological foundation for various gendered significations. In Situating the Self, Benhabib expresses an explicit allegiance to Butlers claim that the category of sex is not simply an anatomical
fact. Indeed, she agrees with Butler, that the construction and interpretation
of anatomical difference is itself a social and historical process. . . . Sex and
gender are not related to each other as nature to culture (1992, 192). Yet,
despite her claim that the opposition of sex and gender must itself be questioned, she remains highly critical of Butlers reformulation of those categories in terms of the notion of performativity, and it is precisely in this reformulation that Benhabib understands agency to be lost.
Butlers theory of performative gender constitution cannot, Benhabib argues, do justice to the complexities of the ontogenetic origins of gender in the
human person (1995b, 108). While it gives us some account of how meaning is constructed and how significance comes to be attached to our gendered

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identities, it nevertheless fails, according to Benhabib, to give an explanation


of the structural and developmental processes which are in fact involved in
individual socialization (and hence in the construction of our gendered identities).4 It also fails to give an account of the capacities individuals possess for
some degree of self-determination. We can begin to see here the sense in which
Benhabib and Butler are at odds with one another. On the one hand, Butler
wants to claim that there is no ontologically intact reflexivity to the subject
which is then placed within a cultural context (1995b, 46). She is critical of
accounts of the subject (such as Benhabibs) which characterize it as selfreflective, self-determining or autonomous on the basis that, in her view,
they presume a subject which has the capacity to deliberate or act outside of its
cultural context. Benhabib, on the other hand, talks about there being ontogenetic origins (1995b, 108) of gender in the subject and claims that these
origins cannot be explained or accounted for by Butler. Nevertheless, against
Butlers characterization of her, she explicitly seeks to contest the claim that
the subject deliberates or acts outside of its cultural context. Indeed, her aim
in Situating the Self is precisely to work against such a claim. Her argument
is rather that subjects have the capacity to challenge their situatedness, to
contribute to the constitution of their own identity and to their own place in
the world (1992, 8), and it is precisely this capacity, captured in part by the
term reflexivity, which she understands to be lost or disavowed by Butlers
theory of performativity. It is clear here that Benhabib and Butler critique one
another on the basis of largely caricatured accounts of the claims each in fact
seek to make. As such, the disagreements between them can be understood to
be somewhat hazier than they initially appear. This mischaracterization of the
views against which both Benhabib and Butler formulate their own theoretical and political positions is an important issue and is one which I will come
back to at a later point in the paper.
Nevertheless, what is clear at this stage is that it is at this critical point, this
disagreement over the origins or explanation of gender constitution, that Butler and Benhabib understand each other to diverge. Most significantly, it is
at this point that Benhabib understands Butler to undermine the possibility of
autonomy, choice, and self-determination. In providing an account of gendered identity as performative and so failing, according to Benhabib, to give an
account of the capacity of subjects for self-reflection and self-determination,
she understands Butlers account of the construction of subjectivity to be ultimately (socially) deterministic. Moreover, she questions whether the dissolution of the concepts of agency, autonomy, and selfhood is in fact necessary to
contesting the supremacy of heterosexist and dualist positions in the womens
movement (1995a, 21). She therefore questions the need for Butler to take as
radical a position as she does in order to achieve particular theoretical ends.
In the context of this paper, the most significant critical outcome of Benhabibs critique of Butler on this issue is the way in which she relates it to the

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very possibility of a feminist politics. For Benhabib, the possibility of a feminist politics depends upon an account of subjects as agentsthat is, as capable
of self-reflection and some degree of self-determination. Since, for Benhabib,
Butlers project precludes such an account, she also understands it to undermine the possibility of a feminist politics. It is important to note that in order
to make this claim, Benhabib is clearly making three more basic, related,
claims. First of all, on the basis of a very brief critical analysis, she is claiming
that Butlers performative account of the categories of sex and gender necessarily gives way to a problematic political vision. Second, she is clearly making some important assumptions about the nature of a feminist politics and
about the sorts of theoretical projects which feminists ought to pursue (or
ought to envisage) in order to support such a politics. Third, she is making
some significant assumptions about what might in fact constitute agency.
For indeed, it is clear both that a notion of agency is employed by Butler and
that this notion is critical to Butlers understanding of the transformative
possibilities of her account of gender constitution. Benhabib and Butler are
therefore at odds with each other on a number of significant points. In Butlers
response to Benhabib, it will become even more clear to what extent these
points of disagreement or divergence determine the ultimate force of their
critiques of one another.
(II) BUTLERS RESPONSE TO BENHABIB
In considering the general form of Butlers response to Benhabib, it is
apparent, first and foremost, that she takes an approach very different from
Benhabibs toward the problem of politics which emerges within debate over
the possible alliance of feminism and postmodernism. Indeed, she would question Benhabibs critical claim that feminism must articulate a stable subject
in order to ground a feminist politics. She claims that, rather, a specific version of politics is shown in its contingency once these premises are problematically thematized (1995b, 36). That is, the character of the political arena is
itself brought into question once the premises upon which it is based (premises
such as the very stability or unity of the subject) are shown to be problematic. For example, once an identity category (such as women) is no longer
understood to represent a unified, stable, identity (woman), then the legitimacy of identity-based politics is itself brought into question. So, rather than
question whether a stable subject is necessary in order for a feminist politics to
be possible, Butler questions the very structure of the political domain which
seems to necessitate a stable subject. Indeed, she claims that the contingency
of that very domain is revealed as soon as the stability of the subject is brought
into question.
Butler also differs from Benhabib in offering a radical critique and renegotiation of traditional formulations of the notion of agency.5 Specifically, she

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is critical of the autonomous, rational subject of liberalism, broadly construed. She is critical of such formulations precisely because, in her view, they
disavow both the situated and the constituted character of subjectivity.
That is, they disavow both the fact that we always act from and within a cultural schema and, most importantly, that we are constituted by and through
those very acts. Indeed, Butler rejects Simone de Beauvoirs version of the sex/
gender distinction on precisely these grounds, that is, on the grounds that it
presupposes an account of the subject as at some point free from gender and
as capable of deliberately taking up their gender.6 She claims that the idea
that there is a doer behind the deed, an idea she attributes to liberal formulations of agency, is installed by theorists only in order to assign blame and
accountability (1995b, 46). That is, it is a fictive structure set up for the purposes of morality (1995c, 135). For Butler, the doer is constituted in and
through the deed. Her theory of performativity is aimed precisely at capturing the sense in which signification and action are coincident. Yet, significantly, Butler wants to claim, contrary to Benhabibs criticisms of her, that
agency is not lost or disallowed here. To claim that the subject is constituted
is not, she argues, to claim that it is determined; on the contrary, the constituted character of the subject is the very precondition of its agency (1995b,
46). Butler therefore contests the claim that having an account of subjects as
constituted necessarily gives rise to an account of subjects as determined. Insofar as the subject is the site of endless transformation and resignification and
insofar as its constituted character is never fixed but always in process, Butler claims that resistance is always possible. Agency is therefore located by
Butler in the very instability of the subject.
In response to Benhabib, therefore, Butler is evidently highly critical of the
claim that a subject must be stable or grounded in some way in order for
agency to be possible. Indeed, she argues that such stability disavows the constituted and transformative character of the subject. Butler argues that Benhabib misconstrues her theory of performativity by grammatically reinstalling
the subject behind the deed, and by reducing . . . the notion of performativity
to theatrical performance (1995c, 135). It is clear here, then, that Butler and
Benhabib fundamentally disagree on how we might conceive of agency. Moreover, both theorists are guilty of caricaturing, to some extent, each others conceptions of agency. While Benhabib wants to claim that Butlers performative theory of gender constitution is ultimately deterministic, Butler criticizes
Benhabib for offering an account of agency which implies that subjects are at
some point capable of action which transcends the limitations of the situation
or context from which they act and, most significantly, through which they are
constituted.7 At a later point I will consider in more detail this question of the
different conceptions of agency which inform the critiques of Butler and Benhabib.

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A further important and critical disagreement which divides the work of


Benhabib and Butler is reflected in their different approaches to the political
domain. Their approaches are different for a number of reasons. First, we have
already seen the sense in which Benhabib and Butler approach the problem
of politics from different angles. While Benhabib appears to hold a particular conception of the character of the political arena and deduces from that
character the necessary subjective conditions for political action, Butler appears to look to the conditions which make particular political action possible
and to critically consider from that perspective the character of the political
arena. These different angles inevitably give rise to different understandings of
the norms and requirements of the political arena. Butler disagrees with any
project which seeks to set out the norms or requirements of political life in
advance of political action.8 These norms and requirements, she claims, only
come to be articulated in and through political action (1995c, 129). Benhabib, on the other hand, talks about the importance of striving toward autonomy as an ideal in political life (1995a, 21). She also suggests the importance
of utopian thinking as a practico-moral imperative (1995a, 30). Indeed,
as we have already seen, she claims that social criticism of the kind required
for womens struggles is not even possible without positing the legal, moral
and political norms of autonomy, choice and self-determination (1992, 16).
Norms, Benhabib claims, facilitate expression of the demands of justice and
human worthiness. Utopias portray modes of friendship, solidarity and human happiness (1986, 13). So while Butler claims that the setting up of norms
and requirements in advance of political action disavows the sense in which
norms and requirements are constituted only in and through such action, Benhabib claims that we need to set up such norms and requirements in order for
political struggle to be possible and for the demands of political life to be met.
The curious point to note, however, concerning Butlers contribution to
this issue is the sense in which she ultimately confesses the imperative, in the
reality of political life, to set norms, to affirm aspirations, to articulate the
possibilities of a more fully democratic and participatory political life (1995c,
129). Indeed, she suggests, for example, the strategic and political importance
of retaining the category of women, a category which she has brought into
question, in order to make particular political claims (1993, 222; 1995b, 49).
Whenever this is necessary, she argues, we must simply be aware that such
categories are not fixed or determinate but always sites of contest (1993, 221;
1995b, 50). She therefore wants to claim that in problematizing that category
she does not want to prevent it from being used in order to serve particular
ends, but rather to open it up to the possibility of resignification and transformation. Indeed, for Butler, the problematic character of the category ultimately enables such resignification and transformation.
How can we understand Butlers critique of identity categories and her cri-

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tique of identity politics in relation to this ultimate appeal to the norms and
requirements of the political arena? Butler provides very little material which
directly addresses the programmatic implications of her critique of identity
categories.9 Indeed, part of the difficulty we have in assessing her work is working out precisely what her programmatic vision for a feminist politics might be,
given the theoretical imperatives which guide her work.10 Nevertheless, given
the criticisms which such theorists as Benhabib raise against her work, it seems
imperative that we question what possible direction a feminist politics would
take on the basis of the various critiques she makes of identity categories and
identity-based politics. Does Butler, as Susan Hekman claims, ultimately give
up the basis for a feminist politics (Hekman 1995a, 156)?
To address this question, let us return here to some claims Butler does explicitly make concerning the strategies we might employ as feminists addressing the concerns of women in the political arena. Despite being insistently
critical of the descriptive force of the category women, Butler endorses strategic use of that category to serve particular political ends. She claims that
to understand women as a permanent site of contest, or as a feminist site of
antagonistic struggle, is to presume that there can be no closure on the category and that, for politically significant reasons, there ought never to be. That
the category can never be descriptive is the very condition of its political efficacy (1993, 221). As in the case of her account of agency, we can see here the
sense in which Butler understands categorical instability to give rise to political efficacy. That is, insofar as the category women is always open, always a
site of contest, the possibilities for transformation and resignification, both
within that very category and in its deployment in the political arena, are
never-ending.11
Butlers claims here are critically informed both by her theory of performativity and by her analysis of Slavoj Zizeks analysis of political signifiers as
empty signs which come to bear phantasmatic investment of various kinds
(Butler 1993, 191). Butler claims that understanding the category of women as a political signifier in this way affirms the sense in which that signifier
unifies the category it seeks to represent and, simultaneously, constitutes that
very category. The performative power of the political signifier therefore lies in
enacting that which it names (1995a, 150; 1995c, 134). The critical force of
the political signifier consists in its failure, ultimately, to fully or comprehensively describe or represent that which it names. It is precisely this open-ended
character, this inability to ever fully establish or describe the identity to which
it refers which, Butler claims, constitutes the possibility of an expansive rearticulation (1993, 218) of that identity. So, in summary, the performative
character of the signifier is the very condition of its agency.
Agency is therefore located by Butler in the performative character of the
political signifier. It is not an attribute or power of subjects, through which
they assert control or authorship over action or signification. Indeed, But-

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ler is highly critical of an account of agency which implies that the subject is
somehow the exclusive origin or owner of action or signification (1993,
227). The subject, for Butler, is constituted in and by a signifier (such as woman), where to be constituted means to be compelled to cite or repeat or
mime the signifier itself (1993, 220). Agency is located in this very action of
at once being brought into being by and repeating or miming the signifier itself.12 Possibilities for agency, and therefore for change and transformation,
lie in the very activity of repetition and identification. Furthermore, such activity is not, for Butler, entered into deliberately or voluntarily but rather is a
process which subjects are compelled to enter into insofar as they are constituted in and through relations of power in society.
At this point it is pertinent that we step back for a moment and consider the
accounts against which Butler is formulating her own position on agency. Butler caricatures traditional, liberal, accounts of agency insofar as she presumes
that they, necessarily, install a doer behind the deed. That is, they assume a
subject which is at some point capable of acting outside or beyond the limitations or constraints of the discourse or culture within which they are situated
(Butler 1995b, 42). Indeed, Butler accuses Beauvoir of ultimately assuming
precisely such a subject in her account of gendered identity.13 Likewise, she is
critical of Benhabib for, first, apparently investing subjects with the capacity to
deliberate or act outside of their cultural context and, second, criticizing her
own account of performativity with such a conception of the subject in mind
(1995c, 135). Yet both Beauvoir and Benhabib are specifically concerned to
situate the subject and thereby emphasize precisely the sense in which subjects act from within a specific social and historical context. How are we,
therefore, to understand Butlers critique of their conceptions of agency, and in
what sense are those conceptions distinct from her own?
In assessing Butlers critique it is clear that Beauvoir and Benhabib ultimately differ from Butler in three important ways. First, they differ in the
relative strength of the agency or freedom which they attribute to subjects.
Broadly speaking, while Beauvoir and Benhabib clearly equate agency with
subjective capacities for choice or self-determination, Butler locates agency in
resistance, in the possibility of a variation on repetition of those various sustained social performances which constitute our identities (1990, 145). Second, they differ in their accounts of where, in what theoretical and political
space, agency takes place. For Beauvoir and Benhabib, agency is clearly a capacity of the subject, while for Butler, it is an effect of the subject (Butler 1995c,
134). That is to say, it is not, for Butler, a quality or attribute which subjects
somehow possess and deliberately exercise, but rather is an effect of the very
processes through which they are constituted as subjects. Third, Butler and
Benhabib disagree over both the theoretical and political implications of their
respective accounts of agency. While Butler understands both Beauvoir and
Benhabib to be guilty of installing a doer behind the deed, Benhabib is crit-

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ical of Butler for apparently doing away with a doer altogether (Benhabib
1992, 16). Both Beauvoir and Benhabib insist on an account of agency in
which there is a subject who acts, a doer who does. Insofar as Butler criticizes such a formulation she is attempting to emphasize the sense in which
there can be no separation of the doer from the deed. The doer, for Butler, is always constituted in and through the deed. Yet insofar as she wants to
emphasize this simultaneous constituting and constituted character of the
doer, she is accused of losing a valuable account of agency, an account which
construes it as precisely about the sort of control the doer has over their
deeds.
The characterizations Butler and Benhabib provide of each others notions of agency inevitably contribute to the different assessments each make of
the political consequences of those notions. Indeed what the debate between
them illustrates so well is how issues in debate over the political consequences
for feminism of particular notions of agency have come to be confused and
conflated. Benhabib understands Butlers theory of performativity to have debilitating consequences for the emancipatory objectives of a feminist politics
insofar as she perceives the subjective capacities of choice and self-determination to be missing from it. Yet, in response, it seems that Butler is less
concerned with the question of whether or not choice or self-determination are possible than with the question of how such choice or self-determination comes about. She is therefore (to some extent) justifiably wary of the
very terms through which her work is assessed (Butler 1995c, 128). The debate
is characterized by Benhabib as one about losing or disallowing capacities
for self-determination and self-reflection, while it is understood by Butler to
be about reformulating how agency comes about and under what terms it is
effected or established. As she herself states, the task for feminism is actually
to locate strategies of subversive repetition and to participate in those practices of repetition that constitute identity (1990, 147). The task is therefore to
find ways of disrupting and destabilizing the very processes through which we
are constructed as subjects and, in so doing, open up possibilities for change
and transformation in our identities.
Despite the very different angles (and apparent cross-purposes) at which
Benhabib and Butler enter debate with one another on this issue, it is abundantly clear that both invest considerable political importance in their respective conceptions of agencyfor both, that importance consists in the possibility for transformation and resignification of the subject and of cultural
and political relations (Benhabib 1995b, 108; Butler 1995b, 46). Ultimately,
therefore, we are left with the question of what sort of account of agency is consistent with the possibility of such transformation and resignification. Clearly,
both Benhabib and Butler consider each others accounts to be inadequate (or
incoherent) with respect to this possibility.
In summary, three critical issues characterize the debate between Benhabib

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and Butler. First, there is a fundamental disagreement between them over how
to understand the origins and operation of agency. Second, despite agreement
over the political importance of agency, there is a division of opinion over the
question of precisely how it does or ought to operate in the political domain.
Third, there is specific disagreement over the implications for a feminist politics of particular conceptions of agency.
The primary focus of Benhabibs critique of Butler is the notion of agency
which emerges from Butlers performative account of sex and gender and the
inadequacy of that notion for the articulation and representation of what she
perceives to be issues of specifically feminist political concern. However, I
want to suggest here that even if we disagree specifically with Benhabib over
the question of precisely what such issues are, or how we might go about addressing them, we are still left with the question of whether Butlers performative account of those categories provides an adequate framework in which
to address and support either its own implicit political commitments or those
issues of political representation and agency as they are debated in the broader
context of the Anglo-American feminist theory in which she is situated. In the
next section of this paper I will begin by considering in more detail precisely
what sort of political commitments are implicit in Butlers work and how she
understands the issues of political representation and agency to be addressed in
the context of such commitments.
BUTLER THEORIZES THE POLITICAL
Aside from Butlers explicit reference to the strategic importance of retaining the category women in order to meet particular political ends, she
does make some general comments in her work which suggest that a particular
vision for a feminist politics does, at least implicitly, inform her work. First
of all, Butler suggests that feminism must engage in a critical analysis of its
own grounds in order to avoid losing its democratizing potential (1993, 29).
Moreover, she clearly positions herself in Bodies That Matter in the context of
theorists committed to radical democratic theory. In support of this suggested commitment to radical democratic aims, she appeals to a more fully
democratic and participatory political life (1995c, 129). In this section I will
address three questions. First, what does such a commitment, even if only implicitly, entail for Butler and how is it to be understood within the terms of her
theory of performativity? Second, how is the issue of political representation
addressed within this theory? Third, how might Butler, in response to critics
such as Benhabib, reconcile her account of agency with this apparent commitment to radical democratic aims?
To address the first question here, I will not endeavor to give a comprehensive account of the various aims and objectives espoused by theorists committed to radical democratic politics. Rather, I will be concerned to draw out

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precisely what it is that Butler draws upon in her own account of such aims and
objectives and how she seeks to deploy some aspects of them within her own
vision for a feminist politics. In drawing upon the work of Ernesto Laclau and
Chantal Mouffe (Laclau and Mouffe 1985), Butler identifies several aspects of
their theory for a radical democratic politics which she understands to be pertinent for understanding her own conception of the performative function of
the political signifier.14 For Butler, as we have seen, the political signifier (such
as women) is politically effective precisely because of its power to produce
and constitute its political field and its simultaneous failure to ever fully describe or represent that which it names. Like Butler, Laclau and Mouffe subscribe to the view that political signifiers are productive and constitutive of the
political field. They also claim that all political signifiers are contingently related to one another. Insofar as such signifiers are always in themselves incomplete (that is, insofar as they always fail to fully describe or represent that which
they name), they can and should be perpetually rearticulated in relation to one
another. Laclau and Mouffe claim that this process of rearticulation is productive of new subject positions and new political signifiers and, consequently,
new linkages between these positions and signifiers, can become the rallying
points for politicization (Butler 1993, 193). Laclau and Mouffe therefore understand politics to be essentially a practice of creation, reproduction and
transformation (1985, 153). They insist on understanding the domain of the
political as the space for a game which is never zero-sum, because the rules
and the players are never fully explicit (1985, 193). Radical democratic theoretical and political potential consists precisely in this productive and constitutive character of the political domain.
Critical to the aims and objectives of a radical democratic politics is, therefore, an exposure and avowal of the necessary error of identity (Butler 1993,
229). Butler understands the democratizing potential of identity categories to
consist in mobilizing that necessary error and so exposing that which they
exclude (the abject). Such exposure and mobilization is vital, according to
Butler, to the very democratizing potential of a feminist politics. It is precisely
in this sense, then, that Butler understands the category of women to have
open and democratizing potential (1993, 221). For this reason, she is specifically critical of the claim that problematizing the identity category women necessarily leads to an impossibility of a feminist politics.15 Indeed, for
Butler, the problematic character of that category is itself constitutive of its
democratizing potential.16 Leaving that category open, and so never understanding it to have a fixed or determinate set of references, will leave it open
to challenge and therefore open to the sort of change, transformation, and resignification which feminism might seek.
In summary, therefore, it is clear that Butler situates herself in the context
of political theorists who see radical democratic potential in the incompletion
of the political signifier and relations between political signifiers. Although

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Butler is not explicit in providing us with a programmatic vision for a feminist politics, it is clear that the recognition and mobilization of the necessary error of identity which is operative in Laclaus and Mouffes radical democratic theory is pertinent in the context of her own understanding of the
possibility and democratic potential of a feminist politics. Indeed Mouffe,
like Butler, appeals to the (postmodern) critique of identity categories precisely because of the sense in which that critique demonstrates the multiplicity
of subject positions which ultimately contribute to the constitution of a single agent (Mouffe 1988, 35). Mouffe claims that it is this multiplicity which
should be the site of politicsfor her, a full understanding of politics is impossible without a theory of the subject as precisely a decentered, destabilized
agent (1988, 35).17
As I have claimed, two issues of specifically feminist political concern
emerge in the context of Butlers theory of performativity and, more specifically, in the context of her theory, outlined above, of the performative function
of the political signifier. The first is the issue of political representation; the
second is that of agency. I will turn first here to the question of how the issue
of political representation is addressed in these contexts.
We have seen here that the content of the identity category of women is
never stable or fixed. Insofar as it is a performative, or as it functions performatively, according to Butler, it constitutes itself as a category at the point
at which it is named. Its content is, in this sense, highly malleable and negotiable. Indeed it is this very malleability which, for Butler, determines its democratizing potential. It is, for Butler, a category which is open to a continual process of transformation and resignification. Yet we may well ask what this
malleability implies for the question of whether we can ever talk about there
being some meaningful or substantial account of the content of that category.
For example, is the term women simply an empty sign (Butler 1993, 191)
which we invest with whatever meaning we choose at any given time? Insofar
as that category of women does operate as such an empty sign, what does this
effectively mean for the political representation by the feminist movement of
women and womens concerns?18 How do such things come to be represented? Is our representation of them always strategic and temporary? Is this a
problem?
One consequence of the way in which Butler construes the gender identity
category woman as an empty sign is that that category, and those concerns
which we might identify as unique to that category, are wholly malleable and
negotiable. According to Butlers account, there can be no meaningful or substantial content specific to or determinate of that category or concerns except
that which we invest in them. Furthermore, even at the point at which we
name that category and so invest it with meaning or content, that meaning
or content is shifting. That is to say, insofar as it can never fully describe or
represent that which it names its meaning can never be fixed and it will mean

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different things at different times and in different contexts. For this reason, the
political representation of women and of womens concerns will always be,
for Butler, a slippery affair.
The implications of this slipperiness for the feminist movement are, as I
suggested in the previous section, different according to the different political contexts in which they are assessed. For example, insofar as it has historically been a movement which has specifically sought to represent women
and womens concerns, it is clear that for Butler such representation can
never be entirely legitimate. Indeed, Butler specifically seeks to point out that
identity as a point of departure can never hold as the solidifying ground of a
feminist political movement (1995b, 50). That movement can never legitimately prescribe a fixed content or meaning to the categories of women or
womens concerns. In this sensethat is, insofar as feminism is understood
as primarily a representative movement or lobby group for a particular group or
particular concernsits political force does appear substantially weakened by
Butlers theory of performativity. However, in the context of her vision for a
radically democratic politics, the open and transformative potential of the
category of women appears to provide general support for such radically
democratic aims. On the one hand, therefore, Butlers performative account
of gender can be understood to weaken identity-based politics. On the other
hand, it could be understood to enrich our understanding of gender and so
enrich our understanding of the processes through which women and men
are constructed in particular ways.
The second issue of specifically feminist political concern that emerges in
the context of Butlers theory of the performative function of the political signifier is that of agency. As we have seen, Butler understands the political domain to be productive and constitutive of subjects. It is also clear that insofar
as this production and constitution is an ongoing and transformative process,
it is one that, according to Butler, gives rise to the possibility of agency or resistance. The question which arises at this point, therefore, is whether Butler is
rightly or wrongly accused by critics such as Benhabib of ultimately disallowing agency and so giving up the basis for a feminist politics. What sort of
agency is actually disallowed by Butler and is this the sort of agency feminism actually requires in order to fulfill its emancipatory objectives? Is Butlers conception of agency ultimately inadequate for accounting for the sort of
resistance which might be required in order for subjects to avoid wholesale
social determinism? How is resistance possible? Is such resistance enough to
enable the democratic and emancipatory aims implicit in her political vision
for feminism?
Wendy Browns work offers some significant insights for the purposes of
addressing these questions. Furthermore, it illustrates very well how feminist
political concern surrounding the issue of agency has come to be confused be-

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cause of disagreement over precisely what sort of agency is necessary in order


to ground or support particular political aims. Brown points out that a problem which is critical for feminists today lies in discerning how we might formulate a discourse of freedom that is appropriate to contesting antidemocratic
configurations of power (1995, 7). In other words, she, like Butler, posits democracy as the ultimate goal of her political vision and asks what sort of account of agency is necessary for the fulfillment of that goal. As a consequence,
she focuses specifically on how formations of power in contemporary society
might be democratized and how we might contribute to strategies that avoid
an account rendering subjects unresisting vehicles of its objectionable contemporary functions (1995, 34). That is to say, she wants to avoid an account
of subjects as constituted and thereby determined by the relations of power in
which they are situated and to think about how subjects might, in practice, resist such determination. Significantly, therefore, Brown seeks to think through
just what is actually involved in contesting and subverting those relations of
power in which we are situated while avowing the sense in which those relations are not something we can actually overcome or actively control.
Browns work is significant in bringing into focus two critical issues that
are directly relevant to our assessment of Butlers conception of agency. First,
while clearly aligning herself with a conception of power as productive and
constitutive of subjects, Brown affirms the necessity of defining strategies of
resistance to such power.19 Second, she explicitly attempts to articulate the sort
of power which is entailed by the actual practice of freedom by subjects.20
Considering her work in relation to Butlers conception of agency (and the
claim that that conception gives rise to a problematic political vision) yields
some important insights. First and foremost, Brown claims that the mere existence of resistance (as a mode of agency or freedom) is not enough to successfully contest or arrogate power. [Resistance] by itself, she argues, does
not contain a critique, a vision, or grounds for organized collective efforts to
enact. . . . Resistance-as-politics does not raise the dilemmas of responsibility
and justification entailed in affirming political projects and norms (1995,
49). In other words, resistance by itself is not enough to make possible the successful undermining of contemporary configurations of power, nor is it sufficient to raise the moral framework necessary for affirmative political action.
Furthermore, resistance does not necessarily give rise to a particular (democratic or emancipatory) political direction (Brown 1995, 22).
As I suggested, the issues raised by Brown here raise some important points
that are significant in our assessment of the political implications for feminism
of the performative framework through which Butler develops her account
of agency, an account which, as we have seen, is defined primarily in terms of
resistance. In summary, these points principally concern the need Brown identifies for, first, defining strategies of resistance to power; second, establishing

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grounds for collective agency; and third, raising the moral framework necessary for affirmative political action. All of these points suggest the need for a
stronger account of agency than the notion of resistance which is provided by
Butler.21 That is to say, they suggest the need for a stronger account of what role
subjects may actively play in their construction as gendered, on what grounds
they might strengthen that role in the political arena through collective action, and how they might set up appropriate aims and objectives that contest
their determination by the highly gendered relations of power in which they
are situated. I want to suggest here, therefore, that while Butler cannot be accused of disallowing agency or of wholly undermining the basis for feminist
political action, we are nevertheless justified in considering her conception of
agency inadequate to explain or to provide an account of the actual practice of
freedom by subjects or groups of subjects in the political arena.
It will not have gone unnoticed that the problems associated with Butlers
theory of agency bear similarities to those identified by many critics in the
work of Michel Foucault.22 Likewise, Browns response to these problems can
also be perceived as an attempt to resolve some of the issues raised by a Foucauldian model of power in relation to political activism. Needless to say, while
feminism is certainly not left in a state of crisis through an adherence to the
theory of agency emerging from such a model, I have suggested in this paper
that too little attention is paid by theorists such as Butler to two issues: first,
to identifying the relation between the individual and the processes through
which they are constructed; and, second, to locating points of intervention in
those processes.23 There is a reluctance to address explicitly the questions of
how it is that individuals in practice resist determination by dominant gender
norms and how such norms might be actively contested in the context of a
feminist political movement. Until such issues are addressed, accounts such as
Butlers risk providing a theoretical framework for feminism which bears little
relation to the practical political issues it faces.

NOTES
1. See, for example, essays in Benhabib et al. (1995) and Hekman (1995a).
2. See, to name just a few examples, Alcoff (1988), Bartky (1995), Bordo (1992),
Butler and Scott (1992), Hekman (1995b), Nicholson (1990), Riley (1988), and
Schweickart (1995).
3. See Butler (1993, 28) for an example of this claim.
4. This claim is only briefly articulated by Benhabib. It seems important to note
that it is ostensibly a curious one given that Butlers theory of performative gender
constitution seems to be precisely a theory about the structural and developmental
processes which are operative in the construction of identity (such as identification
and repetition). Nevertheless, the point Benhabib desires to make, over and above her

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general uneasiness with the social research paradigms which guide Butlers work, is
that Butlers theory of performativity does not provide an adequate explanation of the
capacity of subjects for some degree of self-reflection and self-determination.
5. I have referred here to Butlers critique of traditional, liberal formulations of
agency as radical in comparison to Benhabibs own account of agency. Benhabib,
however, is not uncritical of liberal accounts of agency. Indeed, insofar as Butler is
construing the liberal account of agency as one in which subjects are somehow disembedded, disembodied, abstractly rational, etc., Benhabib would concur with
Butler in criticizing such an account. Nevertheless, the accounts of agency which they
ultimately provide in response to their critiques of liberalism differ sharply from one
another. This difference in their responses to the liberal account of agency is largely
due to their different characterizations of that account.
6. See Butler (1986).
7. Butler asks, in response to Benhabibs criticism of her, what notion of agency will that be which always and already knows its transcendental ground, and speaks
only and always from that ground? To be so grounded is nearly to be buried: it is to refuse alterity, to reject contestation, to decline that risk of self-transformation perpetually posed by democratic life: to give way to the very impulse of conservatism (1995c,
132).
8. Indeed, she notes that any effort to give a universal or specific content to the
category of women, presuming that that guarantee of solidarity is required in advance,
will necessarily produce factionalization, and that identity as a point of departure can
never hold as the solidifying ground of a feminist political movement. Identity categories are never merely descriptive, but always normative, and as such, exclusionary
(Butler 1995b, 50).
9. Indeed, she explicitly claims in Bodies That Matter that her text is not intended
to be programmatic, but nevertheless hopes it will be productive in some way (Butler 1993, xii).
10. My task in this paper is, in part, to consider how Butler might programmatically
theorize a specifically feminist politics. However, I have chosen not to address here in
detail the more general sense in which she perceives some activities to have political
outcomes or to amount to political acts. In Gender trouble, for example, Butler refers to
drag as a sort of political act insofar as it is subversive of what we commonly understand
to be genderthat is, as something that is attached to or a consequence of sex. To the
extent that drag imitates genders, Butler argues, it reveals the sense in which those
genders are themselves imitative and inscribed contingently on the surface of bodies
(1990, 13637). She claims that drag therefore effectively mocks any appeal to a notion of true gender identity. The sort of parody involved in drag is political, or constitutes a sort of politics, insofar as it brings into question dominant political norms
concerning genderit bends our preconceptions about gender.
11. Butler is not alone in seeing the political importance of retaining the category
of women while remaining insistently critical of the character of its possible construction and deployment. Drucilla Cornell argues, like Butler, that leaving the term
open and never fixing its constitution yields endless transformative possibility (1995,
87). Like Butler, Cornell is critical of identity-based politics. Cornell relies instead on
what she refers to as an explicitly political enactment of mimetic identification as the
basis for solidarity (1995, 71).

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12. Butler concludes, [this] resignification marks the workings of an agency that is
(a) not the same as voluntarism, and that (b) though implicated in the very relations of
power it seeks to rival, is not, as a consequence, reducible to those dominant forms
(1993, 241).
13. See Butler (1990, 8) for a further example of this claim.
14. See my reference earlier in this paper to Butlers comments on the performative power of the political signifier.
15. See Butler (1993, 188).
16. Mouffe is also critical of claims that a critique of identity categories necessarily leads to an impossibility of a feminist politics (1992, 371). In a similar vein to Butler
(although with more practical political principles in mind) she suggests rather that
such a critique is necessary in order to reach an adequate understanding of the variety
of social relations where the principles of liberty and equality should apply (1992,
371).
17. Mouffe also writes, we are in fact always multiple and contradictory subjects,
inhabitants of a diversity of communities, . . . constructed by a variety of discourses
and precariously and temporarily sutured at the intersection of those subject-positions.
Thus the importance of the postmodern critique for developing a political philosophy
aimed at making possible a new form of individuality that would be truly plural and
democratic (1988, 44).
18. It is important to note here that Butlers theory of the performative function
of the political signifier obviously has implications for all political signifiers, not simply
that of woman. However, I am here thinking quite specifically about its implications
for the political concerns of feminism, and, for this reason, I am focusing on the political signifiers of women and womens concerns.
19. The need to define strategies of resistance to power arises in the context of feminist critiques of Foucaults notion of agency. Indeed, one of the principal criticisms
raised by feminists against Foucaults notion of agency is that it fails to account for or
explain strategies of empowerment or emancipation for women. Such an account or
explanation is understood to be critical to the aims and objectives of feminism.
20. Indeed she insists that freedom requires for its sustenance that we take full
measure of powers range and appearancesthe powers that situate, constrain and
produce subjects as well as the will to power entailed in practicing freedom (Brown 1995,
25; my emphasis).
21. Indeed, Brown argues that what postmodernity disperses and postmodern
feminist politics requires are cultivated political spaces for posing and questioning feminist political norms, for discussing the nature of the good for women (1995, 49). She
therefore suggests the importance of, first, identifying and critically assessing feminist political norms and, second, considering the potential common values that might
emerge for women in the political arena. Significantly, Benhabib raises a similar requirement for feminism. She argues that what is needed in feminist critical theory is
to develop a theory that is both emancipatory and reflective. Its task should be twofold:
first, to explain, through critical, social-scientific research, the condition of women,
and second, to anticipate, normatively and philosophically, a utopian condition for
women (a condition toward which we should strive) (1992, 152).
22. Indeed, in evidence of her theoretical debt to Foucault, Butler herself explicitly states in Bodies That Matter that her text accepts as a point of departure Fou-

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caults notion that regulatory power produces the subjects it controls, that power is not
only imposed externally but works as the regulative and normative means by which
subjects are formed (1993, 22).
23. In this paper I have focused on the question of how we might resolve Butlers
account of agency in relation to the development of a specifically feminist politics. I
have concentrated on her performative account of gender detailed in Gender Trouble
and Bodies That Matter. In more recent work, such as The Psychic Life of Power (1997b)
and Excitable Speech (1997a), Butler has expanded her analysis of agency and the relation between agency and political action beyond the more feminist-oriented concerns of earlier work. Her focus in both of these books is the question of how agency can
be thought of in opposition to the forces of subordination. That is to say, if we agree
that the subject is constituted rather than constituting in relation to its own identity, how
might that subject assert political agency? How can it be, she asks, that the subject,
taken to be the condition for and instrument of agency, is at the same time the effect
of subordination, understood as the deprivation of agency? (1997b, 10). Although
Butler clearly makes it her task in The Psychic Life of Power to address the question of
how we might make such a conception of the subject work as a notion of political
agency in post-liberatory times (1997b, 18), her response in that book is focused more
on the aforementioned theoretical paradox than on some of the practical political issues
to which that paradox gives rise. The problem of agency is not addressed in a specifically feminist political context, and it is largely for this reason that I have not
explored these works in detail in the present paper, the primary focus of which is issues
arising from the debate between Benhabib and Butler.

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